Xinyi Cheng, I surrender . . . , 2018, oil on linen, 55 × 45".

Xinyi Cheng, I surrender . . . , 2018, oil on linen, 55 × 45".

Xinyi Cheng

“I told him I was a painter who’s fascinated by emotions, desires and power dynamics.” So writes Xinyi Cheng in recounting her first acquaintance and ensuing friendship with Christiaan, a gay man, upon moving to the Netherlands in 2016. Narrated in a matter-of-fact tone, the story served as the press release of her first solo exhibition in China, “Harnessing the Power of Wind.”

Most of the works on view—paintings and a photographic still life—were produced during Cheng’s two-year residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. In focusing her attention on the life of a gay European man, Cheng assumed a double risk: Homosexuality remains taboo in China, her home country, while in a Western context her identity as a straight woman could expose her to accusations of cultural appropriation. Luckily, Cheng’s works eschew anything like a reverse exoticization, instead uncovering the subtle yet universal nuances of attraction between any two or more individuals, regardless of sexual orientation. Rife with pictorial tropes of masculinity, her paintings sometimes depict male genitals, backs and torsos, overgrown or undergroomed facial and body hair and long locks, androgynous physiques and delicate garments, while avoiding anything blatantly pornographic. Instead, an erotic charge is communicated through a pensive gaze in Aperitif, 2018, a flirtatious leer in Foulard, 2017, or the vulnerable stare of Julien, 2017, who is about to get his beard coiffed. In other cases, an attraction is evinced through the scenarios in which these men are placed: separated by a bifurcating river in Song for the Gardener, the Monk and the Poet, 2017, or united in Strangers, 2018, where two men in their underwear are joined by another, dressed in black trousers, under an engulfing umbrella.

Using color to enhance the emotional complexity of her compositions, Cheng has imbued her canvases with the rich and compelling atmosphere of the northern European landscape. Their palette will stir memories in those who have lived in the Netherlands, whose sky is notable for its cold luminescence on short winter days and its dramatic clouds set ablaze on endless summer nights. In Liebe & Romanze, 2017, the inherent melodrama of two men facing each other in a landscape saturated in deep hues like those of a Rothko color field seems to reflect the psychological turmoil of the two protagonists, despite the seemingly cool expression of the one who faces us. Similarly, while the Matisse-like silhouettes of the underwater figures in North Brother Island, 2017, and I surrender . . . , 2018, visualize the loss of balance in one’s desires in the presence of sexual attraction; the differentiation in the figures’ skin tone from brick to pastel pink, set against a chilling background, articulates the presence of power dynamics in any relationship.

Inverting the stereotypical roles of the white male painter and his exotic female muse, Cheng not only revises expectations of gender dynamics in an artistic context, she asks for them to be reconsidered across the board. In her story, she recounts that when Christiaan’s partner Klaas died, Christiaan inherited one of Klaas’s former lovers. At the core of her artistic practice, Cheng is less concerned with sexuality than she is with the universality—one might even say, the transferability—of human emotions, desires, and power dynamics.